Friday, December 31, 2010

Science Wrap-up for 2010

Ah, that time of year again. Sit by the fire, sip a beverage, and reminisce over the significant events of the past year.

One decade into the 21st century, science (and physics in particular) has started to congeal into a very different model than was norm for most of the 20th century. We live in world in which anti-science sentiment seems to be on the increase, both from religious folk who turn to fundamentalism as a bulwark against modernism, and also from a large number of educated and secular people who seem to feel that science simply has not delivered on its promises. This is not just the "what have you done for me lately crowd" (although there are plenty of them), but "post modernists" who are skeptical of rationalism and the scientific method as world views. These are the folks who embrace the concept of multiple equivalent routes to truth, to which as a good empiricist my response is "prove it."

I wonder if the rise of scientific research and technological sophistication in Chinese, Indian, and other non-European societies may be affecting this point of view. I would like to see a serious study of philosophical and religious viewpoints among Chinese and Indian scientists. I have certainly heard very well-educated researchers claim to believe in some rather seriously flawed superstitions from areas outside of their area of expertise. These were nations that were not directly heirs of the European Enlightenment, and instead had very long-standing and entrenched philosophical systems (Confucianism, so-called Vedic Science, the Kerala School of mathematics) which mixed rational and non-rational elements. Of course, the move from rationalism is just as strong among Western academics, and you have to look no farther than the Huffington Post or Oprah to see people like Deepak Chopra or oz Garcia or Andrew Wyland peddling a mixture of science, pseudoscience and spiritualism.

But the irony is that this a time of remarkable scientific achievement. The by-word of early 21st century science is "interdisciplinary", and many of the most notable achievements of recent years, like those in nonlinear dynamics and metamaterials, cross traditional disciplinary lines. That is not to say disciplinary research is dead, and certainly in my own field of particle physics it has been a banner couple of years.

Particle Physics 
The biggest news in particle physics in 2010 was, of course, the turn-on of the Large Hadron Collider. The LHC had an initial short run, at lower energies, in late 2009, but starting March and continuing with remarkable efficiency until the scheduled Christmas shutdown, the collider operated at a center of mass energy of 7 TeV, half the target energy of 14 TeV. A short late heavy ion run in November demonstrated the LHC's ability to accelerate nuclei, and produced some interesting new results. I was at CERN just before Thanksgiving when my experiment, ATLAS, announced the measurement of "centrality-dependent dijet asymmetry" - no. I didn't know what that meant at first either, but it turns out to be an important signature of the formation of quark-gluon plasma. We were also able to produce first results for the summer conferences, also a remarkable achievement since usually there is a year or so between first data and finished analyses. We already have several papers published. No Higgs boson...yet.
My graduate student, Ram Dhullipudi (far right in tan jacket) in the ATLAS control room during first 7 TeV LHC collisions

The same week the ATLAS was finalizing the dijet asymmatery results from the heavy ion run, two other experiments at CERN, ALPHA and ASACUSA, announced the first sample of trapped antihydrogen atoms. Antihydrogen, fromed from an antiproton and an antielectron, was first produced in 1995, but it has taken until now to develop techniques to trap these antimatters atoms. The trapping times are only on the order of 0.1 seconds, but once the discovery is made, its just engineering after that.

The Tevatron is still running, and like a well-loved old car that just seems to keep running, the old collider continues to produce some interesting results. My experiment, D0, published on the most controversial results in particle physics this year - like-sign dimuon anomaly. This observation of an excessive asymmetry
A≡(N++-N--)/(N+++N--) between pairs of postive and negative like-sign pair of muons may signal a new and significant source of CP-violation, which leads to the excess of matter over antimatter in our universe. The result was summarized in an excellent "Editor's Viewpoint" editorial in Physics. I will let the editor, Roy Briere, summarize:"If this intriguing hint of new physics holds up to scrutiny and is confirmed elsewhere, it will join other significant milestones of high-energy physics. Even if it fades away, it can still live on as part of a testament to the proper workings of empirical science. Indeed, the advent of modern scientific methodology, which forms the root of all our work, is the greatest milestone of all."

A few years ago, the U.S. particle physics community came up with a pithy way of classifying the experiments we do. The devised three categories: The Energy Frontier, The Intensity Frontier, and The Cosmic Frontier. The Tevatron and now the LHC represent the Energy Frontier. The Intensity Frontier would be future neutrino experiments, for example from the Project X at Fermilab after the Tevatron shuts down. The Cosmic Frontier is the realm of searches for Dark Matter and Dark Energy. Just like last year, there were some intriguing hints from Dark Matter searches, particularly results from the Fermi experiment (named after the person, not the lab - it used to be called GLAST) and DAMA. In March 2010 Fermi announced that active galactic nuclei are not responsible for most gamma-ray background radiation. This leads to new models that have to include Dark Matter interactions. The DAMA experiment in the Gran Sasso mine continues to accumulate evidence for Dark Matter in the Milky Way galactic halo.

As I am typing this article, I just received an email update from Scientific American that the IceCube experiment has been completed at the South Pole. With 86 strings of detectors reaching down 2.5 kilometers i the Antarctic ice, this is the largest neutrino observatory ever constructed. An extension of the old AMNADA project, IceCube will look for neutrinos from cosmic sources such as supernovae and gamma-ray bursters.

Lastly, the Eyjafjallajokull volcano erupted in Iceland. What does this have to do with particle physics? Well, it happned the week of one of the largest conferences, the 18th International Workshop on Deep Inelastic Scaterring, held in Firenza. Several attendees were stranded or unable to get to the conference. Personally I made it as far as Barcelona, and ended up giving two talks over the phone from my hotel room. Barcelona is a nice city to stuck in, though...
Students demonstrators in London

Elsewhere in Physics & Astronomy
The search for exoplanets continues to be a great adventure. Astronomers discovered a potentially habitable planet of similar size to Earth in orbit around a nearby star, shown in this artist's impression. Gliese 581g is in its solar system's 'Goldilocks zone' – not too hot and not too cold for liquid water to exist. Personally, if this discovery pans out - some groups are skeptical of the claim - I prefer the other name the discoverers gave the planet: Zamira's World.
Artist's impression of Gliese 581g
Another exoplanet was discovered around a dying star HIP13044, that appeared to have originated outside of our galaxy.

Other Science News
Biologist and entrepreneur Craig Venter and his team revealed that they had created the world's first 'synthetic life form', paving the way for designer organisms that are built rather than evolved. They synthesized the genome of an existing bacterium from scratch and used it to 'reprogram' another bacterial cell

We now know that, around 100,000 years ago, there were four distinct hominds lived simultaneously on this Earth of ours. Besides our Homo Sapiens ancestors, there were the Neanderthals, the Hobbits of Flores Island, and a newly discovered species in what is now Russia called H. Denisova. These Denisvoans may have interbred with H. Sapiens, according to genetic evidence announced late this year.

But maybe the biggest news in the long run came in late November, when researchers in Berlin announced that they had cured a man of AIDS using stem cell therapy.

Notable Physics and Astronomy Deaths

Georges Charpak - inventor of the wire chamber. An experimental particle physicist and detector developer, he turned to medical imaging later in life. A Polish-French Jew, he fought in the resistance and was imprisoned in the Dachau concentration camp. He was awarded the 1992 Nobel Prize in Physics

Nicola Cabibbo - should have won the 2008 Nobel Prize, with laureates Kobayashi and Maskawa. I mean, we call it the CKM matrix, for cripes sake! An outstanding Italian physicist who also fought for rationalism in Italian education.

I had the opportunity to see both Charpak and Cabibbo at CERN. One of the real joys of working in an environment like CERN.

Benoit Mandlebrot - another Polish-French Jew, who emigrated to the United States. And another giant of 20th century science who should have won  Nobel. Mandelbrot is best known, of course, for his work in maps, fractals, and nonlinear systems.

Andrew Lange - CalTech astrophysicist who worked on balloon-borne measurements of the cosmic microwave background.

Geoffrey Burbridge - astronomer and developer of the "quasi-steady state" model of the universe.

Ulrich Baur - was a friend of mine. An exceptional theorist who a professor at SUNY-Buffalo, I best remember Uli as someone who was willing to discuss physics with anyone, including a dumb graduate student. He will be missed by a lot of folks int he field.

Brian Marsden - director of the Central Bureau for Astronomical Telegrams, which was founded by the International Astronomical Union in 1920.

Allan Sandage - made the first accurate measurements of the Hubble constant and the age of the universe.

Martin Gardner - the intellectual's friend. Mathematician and science writer.

Jack Horkheimer - popularizer of astronomy, the Star Hustler.

The Worst Thing to Happen to Science in 2010

The worst thing to happen to science is the continuing campaign of lies and mis-characterizations surrounding global climate change. The Right Wing in the United States (with allies globally) have indoctrinated their followers into rejecting any suggestion that climate change is happening, or if it is happening that it has any human-made causes. This is bad for all of science of course, since the methodology of our colleagues in climate studies are not so different than those employed by the rest of us. Attacks on the integrity and professionalism of one group of scientists is an attack on us all. Unfortunately the scientific community has been very timid in answering these attacks, and that can only spell trouble later on. Not mention, of course, that the whole business causes us to lose time in possibly combating climate change, while we may have the ability to affect outcomes over the next century,

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Why Do Universities Engage in Research?

In the course of the ongoing conversation over how much higher education budgets in Louisiana will be cut, and how those cuts will be distributed, there have been attacks on university faculty as being inefficient and unproductive. Two major claims of non-productivity are sabbaticals and research. I will leave sabbaticals for another post, except to say that at Louisiana Tech they are so rare as to be  a complete non-issue. In the six years I have been an administrator, there have been two paid sabbaticals in my departments, and one of them was taken at LSU (so that the state retained all of that faculty member's productivity despite the sabbatical!)

The other claim is that professors devote too much time to research, that they are paid to teach but instead engage in research rather than concentrating on instruction, and that when they do deign to teach their instruction is subpar because their real focus is on research. These views of university research are rooted in a misunderstanding of the role of research at a university, and are simply wrong. Research is not separate from educational instruction. In fact, research is a necessary and integral part of instruction. However, that is not to say that all institutions of higher education in Louisiana should be engaged in research. Let me explain.

I often use the expression "Research is the zenith of education". The last, best lesson a student learns is how to add new knowledge in his or her chosen field. This is a required educational component for students pursuing a graduate degree, original research being required for a Masters thesis, and even more extensive original research for a doctoral dissertation. All institutions which grant graduate degrees must have faculty who are engaged in ongoing research, in order for these students to complete their degrees. Research does not just start from scratch at a moment's notice either; it takes years to build a lab, to develop a publishing record, and to obtain the grants and other funding to operate a research program.

Research also involves undergraduates. At Louisiana Tech, all of our chemistry and physics majors have to engage in a research project by their senior year, as a condition for graduation. Other programs have similar requirements.  My own research group consists of three faculty (all of whom teach regular classes, by the way), two postdoctoral researchers, six PhD students, two Masters students, and four undergraduate students. When I am in the lab or at my desk working with these students, I am teaching in the oldest and best way: one on one, passing on my knowledge of the field to the next generation of scientists.

I have not spent a lot of time talking about research as a money-making venture for universities, because I do not believe it is the most important reason why universities have on-campus research. But it is a fact that researchers bring in money for the universities. Most people are unaware of what are called "indirect costs" - portions of grants that go directly to the university to offset the costs (electricity, staff support) of doing research. My grants generate enough in indirect funds each year to pay for one full-time employee at Louisiana Tech. In addition, grants generate funds to pay for graduate students to attend the university, and to pay undergraduates to work in our labs. They buy equipment, much of which is also used in courses, and pay for technical staff. Then there is the occasional big money prize: the research that turns into a commercial product. Louisiana Tech researchers have one of the best track records in the nation for producing commercial products and licenses, with the highest number of patents per research dollars expended.

The presence of research universities is directly tied to economic development. These universities can be engines of economic growth. From the North Carolina Research Triangle and the Alabama Tuscaloosa-Birmingham corridor to Austin and Silicon Valley, high tech enterprises are always associated with the presence of comprehensive (and well-funded) research universities. Universities provide the basic research, which industries then turn into applied R&D and, eventually, commercial products. Make no mistake about this - our competitors in the global market know this. China, India, Japan all are investing in university research.

What of the argument that research-active faculty are poor teachers? The opposite is more often the case. A professor who is engaged in his or her field, and who knows and understands the latest developments in it, is invariably better at communicating his or her passion for that discipline to students. In 1995, when an experiment I was on at Fermi National Accelerator Lab discovered the top quark, an article was published in the New York Times that addressed this question of whether researchers also teach. Entitled "'Top' University Scientists Do Teach", it found that all but 12 of 123  PhD faculty engaged in the search for the top quark had taught a class that semester (and eight of those 12 were scheduled to teach the following semester). Together they taught nearly 10,000 students during the term when the top quark discovery was announced.To quote from the article: "We are mistaken in portraying the university as a teaching institution. It is a learning institution, and learning must take place at all levels from the newest freshman to the most senior professor. How can one learn from someone whose own learning is a dusty, distant memory?"

If research is both a desired and a necessary component of education, then should all faculty at all of Louisiana's colleges and universities engage in research? Unfortunately, the answer to this has to be "No." Not all universities in the state are graduate-degree granting, and we have neither the resources nor the population to take them all to that level. Certainly research should be encouraged at LSU and at the three other research intensive universities - Louisiana Tech, UL-Lafayette, and the University of New Orleans. Other schools with a narrow offering of graduate degrees, like the pharmacy program at UL-Monroe, have to be allowed to have research-active faculty in that area and in allied disciplines. But many schools in the state are, and should remain, primarily undergraduate institutions. 

This state has hard choices to make. What kind of higher education system do we want? How will we pay for it? Which institutions will be allowed to function as comprehensive graduate universities? My hope is that these questions can be discussed and debated without attacking faculty for doing what they were asked to do when they were hired: Teach well, and do world-class research.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Dear Science: Republicans are just not that into you...

Interesting and well-written read on the slow breakup between Republicans and Science. Only 6% of working scientists identify themselves as Republicans:



Saturday, February 20, 2010

Palin pwned by Actress with Down's Syndrome

I do not by any means wish to suggest that the former partial-term governor of Alaska, mayor of Wasilla, AK, and Action News sport reporter Sarah Palin is in any way retarded, but she did get completely burned by an actress with Down's syndrome who voiced the character of Ellen in a recent controversial episode of "Family Guy":

My name is Andrea Fay Friedman. I was born with Down syndrome. I played the role of Ellen on the "Extra Large Medium" episode of Family Guy that was broadcast on Valentine's day. Although they gave me red hair on the show, I am really a blonde. I also wore a red wig for my role in " Smudge" but I was a blonde in "Life Goes On". I guess former Governor Palin does not have a sense of humor. I thought the line "I am the daughter of the former governor of Alaska" was very funny. I think the word is "sarcasm".

In my family we think laughing is good. My parents raised me to have a sense of humor and to live a normal life. My mother did not carry me around under her arm like a loaf of French bread the way former Governor Palin carries her son Trig around looking for sympathy and votes.

Rest of the statement is here.

Now, I have mixed feelings about Family Guy. It is really juvenile and low-brow and often I kind of dirty for having watched it. But like South Park, and to a lesser extent The Simpsons, it is about the only TV show that dares to push the envelope in social commentary and satire. I think it is a truism of satire that it misses more than times than it is on the money (SNL, anyone?) but at least they try.

(One of these women is more qualified than the other to comment on current events...)

Friday, February 19, 2010

Is it a pioneer of a brave new world, or someone with OCD?

H+ magazine, which champions the idea of Transhumanism, has a blog by an anonymous author who has decided to take up the motto of "Just Do It" and take the step into transhumanism himself. He has started mounting various eletronic interfaces to his body. Is this cool, or disgusting or what? I realli cannot make up my mind about it. Reminds of a late 80s Japanese horror movie I vaguely remember.

Scrapheap Transhumanism | h Magazine

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Waaaaaay down the rabbit hole!

I teach a nonlinear dynamics course, and at some we talk about fractal dimensionality and self-similar structures like Mandelbrot sets. I LOVE this video, which zooms down into a Mandelbrot set through 214 orders of magnitude. I will let you figure out what an outrageous change in scale that is.

Mandelbrot Fractal Set Trip To e214 HD from teamfresh on Vimeo.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Eureka's Top 30 Science Blogs

Word of warning - the last one is a climate-change denialist, but I suppose the Times Online felt they had to give "equal time to opposing views"(tm). The first one is great, full of steam punk style comics. I plan to read through the archives.

Times Online - Eureka Zone - WBLG: Eureka's Top 30 Science Blogs

Wednesday, February 03, 2010

Me and Bobby Mcgee

This is probably the song I want to be listening to when I finally step off this train.

Now, all together -

Saturday, January 02, 2010

Science New Year's Resolutions

I have a few very specific science-related resolutions for the new year. Not sure if they will be of interest to anyone else, but maybe by writing them down, it will help me stick to them:

1) Publish the DZero jet ratios measurement I am working on with Markus Wobisch and our student Scott Atkins. This should be easy to keep, the analysis is pretty good shape. I expect we will have a preliminary result ready for the winter conferences.

2) Get my other student. Ram Dhullipudi, transitioned form service work to analysis on the ATLAS experiment. Lot of challenges here: not a lot of data yet, the work he is doing on calorimeter data quality is important and the group is small, there is a long line of ATLAS students who want to finish soon, and LA Tech is a relative new-comer in the experiment.

3) Develop a second Honors senior class for next winter, most likely a laser physics course. I have had several requests for this, but with the crazy budget situation and being short a faculty member, I am not 100% sure I will pull this off.

4) Do some more work on non-linear dynamics, try to get a few undergrad physics majors involved with this. I have one lined up who says he wants to work in this area, but family matters have taken up a lot of his time.

Monday, December 28, 2009

2009 - A Year That Science!

So looking back over the last year as a scientist, what stands out most in my mind? If anything, it was a remarkable number of events connected with the 1960s. More about that in a moment. Personally, the big event of the year was the restart of the Large Hadron Collider at CERN. From the point of view of picking events that will have the greatest lasting effect on science, once again it was probably from the areas of astrophysics and particle astrophysics, namely new deep field images from the Hubble space telescope and several hints at the existence of dark matter (including the FERMI and ATIC results and the two CDMS events). Although it did not get much press coverage, I have followed the extremely long solar minimum, which extended into this year. (Only in recent weeks have a few sunspots from the new solar cycle began popping up.) Outside of physics, I would have to say the biggest science stories were the discovery of Ardi (Ardipithecus Ramidus), a common ancestor of hominids and apes; and the H1N1 virus outbreak, which has taxed public health systems across the globe.

A 1960s Redux

A few details are in order. The 1960s echoed in the science of 2009 in a number of ways: The Nobel Prize for Physics was awarded for work done in the sixties, to (with some controversy) Willard Boyle and George Smith for the Charge-coupled device or CCD, and to Charles Kao for the development of optical fibers for communications. The CCD was patented in 1969, based on work done by a Bell Labs semiconductor group formed in 1964. Work on optical fibers date back to 1958, when Sam DiVita of the US Army Signal Corps Lab began working on the idea of transmitting signals through silica fibers (he patented the idea - why did the Nobel committee not recognize his work?) Kao and another scientist, George Hockham, working at a British telephone company, proposed ways to reduce the attenuation in optical fibers, considered a breakthrough toward their practical use for communication.

July 2009 was the 40th of the greatest event in human history, the first human landing on another world, the Apollo 11 mission of Neil Armstrong, Edwin Aldrin, and Michael Collins to the Moon. I have posted about this earlier, but in many ways this was a defining moment of my life. I may never get into space, particularly with the stochastic way that NASA's future is being planned, but I owe my career in science to the space program and the library card my mother got for me when I was still in kindergarten.

The Moon still holds interest, both scientifically and technologically as a future base for space exploration. The most important Moon-related discovery this year was the presence of large amounts of water at the lunar south pole. The LCROSS mission, which crashed two probes into a dark crater, threw up a plume of dust and vapor which, after careful analysis, showed the presence of significant amounts of water as well as sodium and other unexpected minerals. For the millions who watched the LCROSS impacts live (including me and my son) it seemed like a bust at first - no big visible impact plume - but in the end careful planning and and the hard work of painstaking science paid off, with clear evidence from both infrared and UV spectrometers that were trained on the impact.

The LHC, the LHC, Will I Live to See the LHC?

It was starting the become a running gag in high energy physics circles: The LHC will turn on next fall. Fall 2005, fall 2006, fall 2007, fall 2008,.... After the disastrous start last year, interrupted by a magnet quench that took out a sector of the accelerator and caused a year-long shutdown while repairs were made and new safeguards put in place, people actually began hypothesisizing semi-serious scenarios in which the Higgs itself (or God or future civilization) was trying to keep the particle from being detected. CERN was at a critical juncture - Austria temporarily withdrew from CERN, until the outcry within the scientific community forced the Austrian chancellor to reconsider - and needed to get the LHC started again as smoothly and error-free as possible. The CERN management decided to forego a big press event (unlike 2008) but the press caught wind of what was happening anyway.

Fortunately, the re-start has gone extremely well, much better than most of us could have hoped for. Personal anecdote: I took a group of students to Fermilab in late November. We were touring the lab, looking around Wilson Hall, when the first single beams were being injected into the LHC. I talked Judy Jackson into letting us go into to the CMS remote control room for a little while, and the students were very excited to watched the first "splash events" being recorded. I figured they would run in this mode for a week or so, injected one beam and then another. By the time we drove back that weekend, there had already been collisions!

The LHC has already run at energies higher than the Fermilab Tevatron (up to 2.34 TeV center-of-mass, compared to the Tevatron's 1.96 TeV collision energy) although most of the data taken so far has been at 900 GeV. The LHC was stopped without incident for the winter shutdown, will start operations again in February, and if the schedule holds will be colliding beams at 10 TeV by the end of the year. That is the point where interesting things (Higgs, supersymmetric particles, micro black holes, ????) should start happening.

And if they don't? Then the LHC becomes the world's last particle collider. Simple as that.

Whispers in the Dark

What is Dark Matter? Astrophysical evidence, including the WMAP data (second only to the Hubble Space Telescope in revolutionizing our knowledge of the universe) suggests that 23 per cent of the universe is a heavy, rarely interacting particle which we have dubbed "dark matter" for lack of a better term. There are candidate particles for Dark Matter, like the lightest supersymmetric particle (which would not be able to decay into ordinary matter) or axions or heavy sterile neutrinos. Whatever it is, it is nearly five times more common in the universe than the ordinary matter of protons, neutron, and electron.

The year started out with observations from ATIC high-altitude balloon mission that suggested a source of dark matter may lie relatively close to our solar system. In May, the former GLAST experiment, now re-christened FERMI, showed evidence for excess electron/positron production which would also be consistent with dark matter annihilation. The year ended with a tantalizing announcement from the CDMS experiment of two events consistent with weakly interacting massive particles (or WIMPs). All hints that something is out there, but at this point not conclusive enough to claim discovery.

While on the astro side of things, this year marked the return of a refurbished deep field camera on the Hubble Space Telescope, a result of the final re-servicing misison. One of the best, if not the best, astronomical photos of the year was an image of thousands of galaxies (extremely large high-res image available here). There were more great discoveries in the Saturn system, including methane lakes on Titan and incredible images from the continuing Cassini misison. There was the first evidence of a "water world", a super-Earth exoplanet with large amounts of water. The first sunspots of the new new solar cycle began appearing, after a solar minimum that was one of the deepest in a century.

The greatest scientist who passed away during the last year was Norman Borlaug. You probably never heard of him. He won a Nobel Prize, but not in one of the science areas. Instead, he was given a the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970. This unassuming botanist, born in Iowa, was probably responsible for saving more lives than any other human who has ever lived. He is credited with creating the Green Revolution, bringing hearty crop strains to poor nations and changing their agricultural systems from subsistence to single-crop. It is estimated that as many as a billion people have escaped malnutrition and death from famine due directly to his efforts.

Another towering figure in science who passed away this year, this time from the social sciences, was Claude Levi-Strauss, the father of modern antropology. The French honor their intellectuals (perhaps too much) and Levi-Strauss was considered a French national treasure. He began his career studying native tribes in Brazil.

From the physics community, notable passings include
  • Kazuhiko Nishijima (particle theorist who helped develop the quark model),
  • Vitaly Ginzburg (Gizburg-Landau theory as well as the Soviet hydrogram bomb),
  • Joseph Purcell (NASA project director for the Orbiting Astronomical Observatory satellites),
  • Aage Bohr (son of Niels Bohr and a Nobel Prize winning nuclear theorist in his own right),
  • Jack Eddy (who first imaged an individual atom),
  • Jack Good (one of the Bletchly Park code breakers),
  • Stanley Jaki (physicist and theologian),
  • Martin Klein (science historian), and
  • Frank Shoemaker (who helped design the Fermilab Main Ring).
In my younger, more religious days when I was giving serious consideration to becoming a theologian myself, I was influenced greatly by Stanley Jaki's writings. A Bendictine priest, he was an enormous intellect who was as comfortable writing about Godel's Incompleteness Theorem or Grand Unification in particle physics as he was the role of Mary on Catholic worship.

The Worst Thing to Happen in Science in 2009

The year in science started on a positive note. As part of the economic stimulus package, science funding was given a significant boost. Baseline funding for the main science agencies looks strong under the Obama administration, although the growing budget deficits threaten all discretionary spending.

But science has had it hard in recent years, and took a couple of body blows in 2009. I am not talking just about the continuing denigration of scientists in the eyes of the public (commercials for the "Geek Squad", the stereotype-laden TV shows like The Big Bang Theory and Fringe). I also mean incidents that pint out a deepening divide between professional scientists and the general public. The worst incident was clearly the release of stolen emails from the University of Essex Center for Climate Research. First of all, where was the outrage over the lawbreakers who committed this theft? Nowhere, certainly not among the anti-science types who used this as a field day for conspiracy theories and charges for fraud. In the end, there was no evidence for anything approaching falsification of data or attempts to publish misleading conclusions. What the emails showed were simply people talking privately and colloquially about subjects that they would have spoken more careful about if they new their comments would be published. That is no different from any other professions, but somehow it comes off differently when scientists are involved. Perhaps it is the Mr Spock stereotype, that scientists are not supposed to have passions or emotions.

But my conversations with non-scientists have unearthed troubling and frightening misunderstandings of how scientists do their jobs, and of their motivations. Particularly among conservatives and the religious, there is a deep-seated animosity towards scientists, even when some of the particular advancements of science (the space race, high tech weapons, medicines) are appreciated. But even among some who might be considered liberals, there are growing signs of anti-science. Anti-vaccination hype no knows political bounds, for example, and some environmentalists seem more than ready to throw any scientist under the bus who challenges conventional wisdom in their circles. The fashion of most people today is to believe that science which re-affirms your preconceptions, and to reject that which you find uncomfortable or challenging. Curiosity, inquiry, and an open-mind to new discovery are sadly becoming the hallmarks of a bygone era.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

The Biology of B-Movie Monsters

I have read other calculations of bio-mechanical limits, but
The Biology of B-Movie Monsters
by University of Chicago biologist Michael LaBarbara has to be the best and most complete discussion on the subject I have seen.

Friday, November 27, 2009


This seems appropriate for Thanksgiving week - 10 views of the Earth, as taken by different solar system probes. Includes the very first picture of the Earth from the Moon, taken by the Lunar Orbiter 1 mission in 1966.

10 Views of Earth from the Moon, Mars and Beyond [Slide Show]: Scientific American Slideshows

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Playing Catchup on a Busy Science Week

Wow, where to start:

1) Last Friday I got up early and watched NASA television's coverage of the LCROSS impact. There were plans to try to record the impact with Louisiana Tech's new observatory, but we have been socked in with rain for weeks now. Anyway, as most of you know, the actual impact appeared to be a dud. No bright flash or spectacular plume kicked up when the rocket booster and the LCROSS spacecraft itself crashed into the Cebeus craters near the Moon's south pole.

Of course, that was not the end of the story. While the news media moves on to other things (Lindsey Lohan's probation violation, missing kids who may or may not be in a hot air balloon) the scientists got to work on analyzing the data from the impacts. Now we know that there was a plume, just at the low end of what was expected in terms of brightness. And early spectroscopy indicated the presence of sodium, which was a surprise. Still no word yet on water vapor, but stayed tuned.

2) The LHC is back in the news, as we get closer to re-start at the end of November. My student, Ram Dhullipudi, who is stationed at CERN, is very busy these days with the software being used to monitor the data. Our experiment, ATLAS, is already taking shifts just like we will during data taking, recording cosmic ray events and trying to exercise the "machinary" of data taking and distribution. The final sectors were cooled down at the end of the week, now the whole accelerator is colder than deep space.

But the biggest news coverage came last week from the arrest of a postdoctoral researcher on terrorism charges. The physicist, who worked on the LHCb experiment and was employed by EPFL in Lausanne, was accused of having ties to Al Quaida in the the Maghreb, a North African terror group. The first I heard of ths was when all CERN users were sent an email from the Director General after the arrest in Vienne, France, reminding users that CERN is an open lab and did not engage in secret or military research.

Research at these large international labs produces an unusual and unqie environment. During the Cold War, Fermilab was the only U.S. grovernment-run site that flew the Hammer and Sickle of the Soviet Union (along with the flags of all the other nations that had scientists working at the lab). At CERN an American and an Isreali might work side-by-side with an Iranian and a Pakistani. The science does not respect national borders, and to the extent possible with the real problems in the world, the labs also try to to produce an work atmosphere free of national rivalries.

3) Speaking of science that goes beyond borders, a team of researchers in Nanjing, China, have created an electromagnetic analog of black holes in metamaterials. There is a cool local tie-in, since this is experimental verification of an effect predicted by Louisiana Tech researcher Dentcho Genov in his recent Nature Physics article (which is reference no. 5 in the Chinese scientists' paper).

4) What is up with apparent magnetic monopoles produced in solids and so-called magnetricity? This is an effect in materials that behave as "spin ices", and as far as I can tell are like phonons and other lattice quanta in that they are not a "real" particle but a quantized effect in the lattice. But this is getting beyond my depth - something I will have to understand better before I teach electricity & magnetism again.

Tuesday, October 06, 2009

Physics Nobel Goes to Internet Porn Pioneers

Well, once again the discovery of the top quark, and my chance for residual glory, has gone unrecognized by the Swedish Academy of Sciences. Instead they gave the award to Charles K. Kao(for the development of fiber optics), and Willard S. Boyle and George E. Smith(for the development of charged coupled devices, or CCDs). Fiber optics, of course, are the transmission route for high speed digital communications. CCDs are used in digital imaging, everything from medical imaging to the camara in uyour cell phone. We used huge arrays of CCs in the tracking elements of high energy physics experiments like ATLAS, where they are sometimes refered to as pixel detectors. (Dick Greenwood here at LA Tech works on the ATLAS Forward Pixel Detector, for example.)

The Nobels in physics seem to have taken a decidedly applied turn in recent years. I wonder if tis is a trend, or if the acdemy feels they are making up for a lack of recognition of applied areas in the past.

This marks the eighth Nobel prize awarded for work at Bell Labs, which is no more. Bell Labs were spun off into Lucent, which subsequently got out of the research line. Industry does not do fundamental research, and really very little research, these days - another reseaon why strong funding of academic research is so important.

LA BESE Board Caves to Fundamentalists

I am a member of the LA Science Coalition (also on Facebook at They have been putting out some great updates on the way the Board of elementary and Secondary Education has completely caved in to the fundies, led by the Louisiana Family forum, as a result of the disastrous 2008 LA Science Education Act. Full details can be found at

If you are a Louisiana scientist or educator:
1) Join groups like the La Science Coalition and keep up with what is happening.
2) Can an open ear to what is happening in your community, partocularly if you have school age kids. My daughter is taking biology this year in high school, ans so far there has not been attempt to sneak any of the Discovery Intitute propaganda into her class, but I am worried.

It will eventually take professional organizations and others refusing to visit Louisiana for conventions and meetings, and companies refusing to locate in a scientifically illiterate state, to get changes. Here is one interesting quote - In August 2008, the president of the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, which met in New Orleans in April 2009, had already called for scientists to protest such decisions “with our feet and wallets”:

I think we need to see to it that no future meeting of our society will take place in Louisiana as long as that law stands, nor should we hold it in any other state (are you listening, Michigan and Texas?) that passes a similar law. And I call upon the presidents of the American Chemical Society, the American Association of Immunologists, the Society for Neuroscience, and all the other scientific societies around the U.S. and the world, to join me in this action and make clear to the state legislators in Louisiana, the governor of the state, and the mayor and business bureau of New Orleans that this will be the consequence. (ASBMB Today [pdf], August 2008)

Friday, October 02, 2009

Good old Adri!

BBC NEWS | Science & Environment | Fossil finds extend human story

discusses the announcement of Ardipithecus ramidus, a early hominid ancestor with many characteristics of both humans and chimpanzees. It has taken 17 years of study to put the fossils in the correct context, but that is how science works - carefully, meticulously, building upon prior work.

UPDATE: This is a really good article from Science, discussing how the Ardi find fits in with the Lucy discovery in 1974. In a nutshell, Lucy showed us that early hominids walked upright, while Ardi showed that even earlier hominid precursors also had a form of upright walking, while also spending time in tress.